Kuala Lumpur’s lorong-lorong

8 01 2020

Not always the tidiest of places, the small lanes and back streets of old Kuala Lumpur (KL) are more often than not, places to be avoided. There are however a number for which exceptions can now be made – such as the attractive mural decorated back lanes of Bukit Bintang and more recently, the area known as Kwai Chai Hong off Lorong Panggung and Jalan Petaling in old KL. The latter saw a charming makeover and is now a well-visited instagram-worthy tourist draw.

 

Kwai Chai Hong

 

Necessary for sanitation and for fire-fighting in the overcrowded urban centres of Malaya and Singapore, the requirement for back lanes was written into town improvement and planning regulations and by-laws in the early 20th century.  They thus became a feature of the shophouse dominated landscapes of Malaya’s and Singapore’s urban centres. Besides spaces in which drainage, access for removal of refuse and night soil, and for fire-fighting, the back lanes became social spaces as well as ones in which trades – legal or otherwise – could be conducted.

 

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A mural in a back lane in the Bukit Bintang area.

 

Unveiled in early 2019, the Kwai Chai Hong project involves six shophouses on Jalan Petaling and another four along Lorong Panggung and offers quite a delightful take on the back lane as a social space through a series of murals. The monicker Kwai Chai Hong translates into “little ghost lane” or “ghost child lane” is perhaps a reference to the activities that went on whether it may have involved (naughty) children or perhaps gangsters – or even both.

 

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Lorong Panggung.

 

More on Kwai Chai Hong can be found at:

The bridge to the past, with a view to the future (in the form of the yet to be completed tallest KL building,  Merdeka PNB 118 (Menara Warisan Merdeka).

 

A sign painter at Kwai Chai Hong.

 

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A recent addition to the area.

 

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Madras Lane – which hosts a old world back lane market.

 

A typical small lane in KL.

 

A back lane in KL.

 

Some can be quite pretty.

 

Some can contain surprises.

 

Some can also be colourful.

 

Back street buys.

 

 





The abandoned beauty of Canfranc

30 09 2019

For more photographs, please visit:

https://jeromekg.wixsite.com/flymetothemoon/post/the-abandoned-beauty-of-canfranc


Set against a backdrop of snow-capped Pyrenean peaks and in a quiet village in Spanish foothills of the range that forms much of the Franco-Spanish border, the majestic and long-disused Canfranc International Railway Station looks well out of place. Often described as Europe’s most opulent station, it is as much its Beaux-arts styled appearance as is the scale in which it was built that has earned it this reputation.

The beautiful and somewhat mysterious Canfranc International Railway Station seen against the backdrop of the Pyrenees.

Built from 1921 to 1925, it was as much a symbol of Franco-Spanish cooperation at is opening in 1928 as it was to have been the terminal building of an elevated railway line that triumphed over the challenging Pyrenean terrain that separated the two countries. This required, among other efforts, the digging of a tunnel – the Somport tunnel that took six years to complete. It was in use until March 1970 when a train accident, which damaged the Estanguet bridge beyond repair, closed the Pau-Canfranc line for good.

The station has been abandoned since an accident in March 1970 closed the line.

Much intrigue and mystery has surrounded the station since its closure. Over the years, details have emerged of the station having been a transit point for Nazi loot, including some 86 tons of gold stolen from Jews to obtain much needed tungsten in the Iberian peninsula. Tungsten was need to as an alloying element in steel used in tank armour. Details have also emerged of how a French Customs Officer based at the station, Albert Le Lay, posed as a double agent and in doing so, facilitated the escape of hundreds of refugees – many of them Jews into Spain from 1940 to 1942. Dubbed the “Spanish Schindler”, Le Lay, was part of a spy network based at the station that also helped in the transmission of messages and equipment for the French Resistance.

A view through one of the station’s 365 windows.

The station, which measures 241 metres in length, is 12.5 metres wide and has a total of 150 doors – 75 one each side. It also has 365 windows – one as they say – for each day of the year. Operated jointly by France and Spain, it contained a restaurant, a hotel, post and telegraph offices and the offices of the railway operators and immigration and customs officials for both countries.


For more photographs, please visit:

https://jeromekg.wixsite.com/flymetothemoon/post/the-abandoned-beauty-of-canfranc





The SS2 market

8 09 2018

Photographs taken during a walk around the SS2 market in Petaling Jaya. Operating under the shelter of parasols and tarpaulins, the market is  one of only a handful of open air wet markets in Petaling Jaya.

 

 





The mysterious peaks we sing of in “Di Tanjong Katong”

26 12 2017

The tune “Di Tanjong Katong”, a National song, is one we are most familiar with in Singapore. The lyrics of the song contain this rather peculiar verse:

Pulau Pandan jauh ke tengah,
Gunung Daik bercabang tiga;
Hancur badan dikandung tanah,
Budi yang baik dikenang jua.

While the lines of the verse, which seem to have little to do with Tanjong Katong and with Singapore, are borrowed from an age-old Malay pantun or poem, they seem to want to invoke an unexplained longing for the places that are named.

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Di Tanjong Katong.

Singapore’s obsession with its recent past has allowed an amnesia for the time when Singapore’s place was in the Malay world to set in; a time when singing of three peaks of Daik (the line “Gunung Daik bercabang tiga” translates into “Mount Daik has three peaks”) might not have sounded odd at all. The distinctive summit of Daik is a most and recognisable of features on Pulau Lingga, an island that is thought of by some as the Malay world’s motherland1. Lingga is spoken of as a heartland of the Malay culture and language and it is on Lingga, where Malay is spoken in one of its purest forms.

Gunung Daik bercabang tiga.

Pulau Lingga took its place in the old Johor empire of the 16th to 19th centuries as an outpost the sultans could find a retreat in being located at the southern reaches of the widely spread sultanate. Positioned along an ancient maritime trade route to Palembang and Jambi, principal centres in the days of Srivijaya, and there are suggestions that it may have already come to prominence well before it served as a Johor outpost.  Paul Michel Munoz, in his 2006 book “Early Kingdoms of the Indonesian Archipelago and Malay Peninsula”, opines that the island kingdom identified by Marco Polo as “Malaiur” in accounts of his return voyage to Europe could quite possibly have been Lingga – based on estimates provided of distances travelled [Malaiur is a name that was also associated with a Malay kingdom centred around Jambi in Sumatra, which was at one time also part of the Srivijaya empire].

Pulau Lingga also took its place as the seat of Johor’s royal court on two occasions; in 1618, when the capital was moved there as the Acehnese threatened – only for the capital to be sacked by the Portuguese in 1625. Old Johor’s last sultan, also moved to Lingga in 1787, in an attempt to isolate his court from the Bugis (the increasing influence exerted by the Bugis meant that they were effectively running the sultanate from its capital in the Riau). The turning point for Lingga came with the Johor Sultanate’s breakup, a point at which the Dutch and the British were extending their influence. Singapore, in which old Johor could trace its roots to once again prospered when the British East India Company set up its trading post while Lingga was left to the remnants of a sultanate that had lost its clout.

Lingga (Lingen) in relation to Singapore

Lingga (Lingen) in relation to Singapore (Pulo Panjang) in an 18th century Hydrographic Chart seen in the National Archives of Singapore’s online site. (http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/maps_building_plans/record-details/755f2349-a18d-11e6-9af5-0050568939ad).

The advances of the modern world has not made it much easier to get to Lingga and the group of islands around it that takes its name. The islands, now also part of the Lingga Regency within the Riau Islands province, are served by ferry services from Batam or Bintan. Even with the fast ferry, it involves a four-hour journey. This I had the chance to find out for myself when I made the same journey to attend the four-day Festival Gunung Daik, at the kind invitation of the Lingga Regency. With invitations extended to groups outside of Indonesia for the first time, the festival, which was held from 19 to 22 November, attracted an invasion of several hundreds.

On the road to Dabo on Pulau Singkep.

Dabo, on the more populated island of Pulau Singkep, was best equipped to absorb this influx. A 45-minute road journey from Singkep’s northern maritime gateway at Jago, Dabo wears the look of an town which has left its best days behind. It was indeed the case. The town grew out of the riches the extraction of Singkep’s sizeable deposits of tin had provided, until some two decades ago when the last of the mines closed. The extraction of a deposit, found in the darkened interiors of the narrow and windowless structures that now dot Dabo’s urban landscape, seems to be a new but less lucrative gold. The dark spaces mimic the caves in which swiftlets nest and the nests, which the birds make with deposits of their saliva and nesting material, are much valued by the Chinese for their purported medicinal properties.

A disused mining pool that scars Pulau Singkep’s landscape.

The sleepy town’s main draw, at least for the Singaporeans I was with, was an old coffeeshop named Bintang Timur. Time seems to have stood completely still in this Chinese owned coffee shop and the Eastern Star is very much reminiscent of the kopitiams of the Singapore of decades past. If not for the lack of time, it would quite easy for me to waste a morning away over a cup or two of the kopitiam’s strong aromatic brew, made just as it was in the coffeeshops of old Singapore.

Time stands still at the Kedai Kopi Bintang Timur.

The town has culinary offerings that may also delight the Singaporean. Fried kway teow, seemingly prepared exclusively by Chinese men with well weathered faces from roadside pushcarts, is a local favourite. So is laske (or laksa), prepared and served in a manner that will explain the many ways a dish of laksa is served across the region.In Dabo, its base is a noodle made from coils of sago starch. The dish is served fried or as we are used to in Singapore, with a delicious spicy gravy poured over.

A char kway teow seller in Dabo.

In the evenings, a more substantial meal can be obtained from the town’s ikan bakar or grilled fish stalls, which are probably the town’s real treat. In addition to having fresh catch from the sea grilled over a fire, there also is the opportunity to savour it served in the more sweet than sour version of asam pedas gravy popular in these parts.

A popular ikan bakar stall.

The guidebooks point to Dabo’s religious buildings as its tourist sights. The town’s mosque is impressive, as is a large Chinese temple. The temple, the Klenteng Cetiya Dharma Ratna, and a large building in the vicinity in which the local Chinese association is housed, suggests that there is a substantial immigrant Chinese community in Dabo. Some in the community apparently have ties with Singapore. As with much of the Nanyang, the community’s forefathers arrived as part of the diaspora of southern Chinese to the region in the 19th century. In Dabo’s case the tin mines provided work. Today the Chinese run many of the local businesses. Beside being involved in the birds’ nest trade, there also are a number of  food and beverage outlets and sundry shops owned by the Chinese. Chinese vendors can also be found in the town’s pair of markets. The markets, one for the sale of fish and the other for vegetables are both worth a look at.

Klenteng Cetiya Dharma Ratna.

A vegetable seller at Dabo’s Vegetable Market.

Chinese labourers working at the Singkep Tin Company eating a meal (photo: Tropenmuseum, part of the National Museum of World Cultures via Wikipedia Commons). Many Chinese came over to Singkep to work in the tin mines.

The townsfolk’s favourite spots lie further afield. These include a waterfall, several beaches, a hot spring bath, and an oddity of an attraction in the form of an awkwardly positioned cannon. The artillery piece, the meriam tegak, is found at the edge of a beach southeast of Dabo. Buried with only its upwardly aligned muzzle exposed, the locals offer several explanations for the odd alignment. One thing that the differing accounts agree on is that the contributing factor for the cannon’s position is the wrath of a woman!

Meriam Tegak.

The cannon is close to Dabo’s favourite beach, Pantai Batu Berdaun. A popular spot for swimming and a picnic, the beach is named after a rock on which a tree is perched – the “leafy rock” or “batu berdaun“. A house with a curious collection of animals in its compound near the rock was however the centre of attention. It turned out that the house was some kind of animal shelter. The animals, all of which were abandoned, had been taken in and cared for by the house’s kind owner.

Pantai Batu Berdaun.

An animal shelter near Pantai Batu Berdaun.

The waterfall and the hot spring bath will take a little more effort in getting to. The 3km long unmetalled road to the spring bath provides more than a bumpy ride. The path it takes is interesting as it is line with the large waterlogged scars that the extraction of tin has left on the landscape. The baths, which are especially popular with the local folk, seemed much less appealing in the tropical heat as compared to the cool waters found in the pools at the waterfall at Batu Ampar.

Batu Ampar Waterfalls.

The hot spring baths.

The less populated Pulau Lingga with its three projections does have a lot more mystery about it. Lingga, which lies on the Equator just north of Singkep, actually derives its name from the tallest and largest of the three high points. The projection, also named Daik, was thought in the old days to resemble a linggam – Sanskrit for phallus.

A view towards Lingga and its three pronged peak of Mount Daik from Jago on Pulau Singkep.

Penarik near Daik.

Among Lingga’s main attractions is the Resun Falls – the largest waterfall in the Province of the Riau Islands. There are also several  sites that will provide some understanding of Lingga’s colourful past. One, the Museum Linggam Cahaya, has an interesting collection of artefacts. Some show the external links the island had, and a sense of the position it held. Pottery on display, recovered from the depths, include pieces that are thought to date to Song dynasty China. The museum’s most noticeable and popular exhibit is however from a more modern event and is a skeleton of a curious and yet to be identified creature from the deep, named locally as a “Gajah Mina” or Sea Elephant. The bones are from one that was found on the shores of Lingga and one of two similar carcasses that washed up in the Riau Islands in the aftermath of the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami.

Museum Linggam Cahaya.

The island’s historical sites provide links to the Lingga of the last days of the Johor Empire and to the Lingga of the post Johor days when it was the seat of the Riau-Lingga sultanate. One is the ruins of Istana Damnah, a 19th century palace built in Daik by during the reign of Sultan Sulaiman Badrul Alam II (1857-1883), which lies close to the museum. An adjacent site contains a 2002 interpretation of the palace and its main hall, the Balairung Seri. Left abandoned after the Dutch took positive control of Lingga in 1911 and with Riau-Lingga’s last sultan, Abdul Rahman II, having fled to Singapore, the original wooden palace was left to fall into ruin.

Ruins of Istana Damnah.

Another view of the site of Istana Damnah.

The replica Istana Damnah as seen from the replica Balairung Seri.

The site of the Lubuk Papan baths is also nearby. A bathing spot used by those in the palace, the baths were located at a bend in the Tanda River. Today, concrete sides and gazebos placed around it have altered the charm the baths would have had. A natural stretch does exist upstream and this may provide some sense of the attraction as a bathing spot that the entire bend may have had.

Finding peace upstream from the Lubuk Papan baths.

A former fort at Benteng Bukit Cening, and the graves of several of Lingga’s rulers, pre and post break-up are some of Daik’s other royal sites.  Old Johor’s last sultan, Mahmud Shah III, is buried at Daik’s Masjid Jami’ Sultan Lingga. The remains of his son, the half-brother of Hussein of Singapore and Johor and the Riau-Lingga’s sultanate’s first ruler, Abdul Rahman I, can be found on Bukit Cengkeh.

The concretised Lubuk Papan baths at Daik.


Getting there:

There are fast ferry services (daily I believe) from either Tanjung Punggur on Batam or Tanjung Pinang on Bintan to Jago in the north of Pulau Singkep and it typically involves a 4 hour journey. Jago in the north of Singkep is a 45 minute drive to its main town, Dabo.  There also are ferry services between Jago and Tanjung Buton on Pulau Lingga. Getting around seems quite challenging and recommendations range from hiring ojeks (motorcycle taxis) or renting motorcycles. It would be best to inquire locally.

For travel products such as ferry tickets, hotels booking and, local tours and transfers in the Riau (primarily Batam and Bintan), do visit Wow Getaways.  More information on the Riau Islands can be found at https://discover.wowgetaways.com/.

Jago, one of the maritime entry points into Pulau Singkep.


Note:

1 One who feels strongly about this is Ahmad Dahlan, Batam’s mayor from 2006 to 2016 and a student of Malay history. In his 2014 book “Sejarah Melayu”, he speaks of the move Sultan Mahmud Shah III’s court to Daik in 1787, even if it was in an effort to isolate himself, as a return to the the mother’s lap.


Lingga and Singkep in photos:
https://www.flickr.com/photos/47093227@N03/albums/72157690104466625
https://www.flickr.com/photos/47093227@N03/albums/72157689803316854


 





The many faces of Munich (and beyond)

31 08 2017

Munich has just got to be one of the coolest places on earth. Its compact size and cycle friendly infrastructure, makes it an ideal place to explore on foot or on the back of a bicycle. You will never go thirsty with its abundance of breweries and beer halls and gardens, and even if it is fairly flat, there are a host of lofty places and activities to take in the views from which you will realise that some of Germany’s highest peaks and ski slopes, are not really so far away.

Munich and its environs is also a place for romance. It is two hours away from the fairy tale Neuschawnstein Castle. In the city itself there is a huge testament to love in the Nymphenburg Palace – and its gorgeous grounds. The summer palace of the House of Wittelsbach, it was built as a gift of love to celebrate the birth of a long awaited heir.

I had the privilege to have a taste of what Munich and its surrounding had to offer, spending a full four days there this summer – thanks to the Munich Tourism. It wasn’t quite really enough to immerse oneself in the wonders but what it the four full days did leave was a realisation that the Bavarian city, whose wealth was built on it being at the crossroads of a busy medieval trading route, delights you in more ways than its famed food, beer halls, football and fast cars.


Flavours of Munich

Marienplatz and the New Town Hall, seen through the arch of the Old Town Hall.

The Nymphenburg – a gift that Bavarian Elector Ferdinand Maria had built for his wife, Henriette Adelaide of Savoy for the delivery of a long awaited heir.

View of the Frauenkirche from the viewing deck of New Town Hall.

Beer tasting at the Donisl – one of the city’s many food and beer places.

There’s even surfing in the city – at the man-made Eisbach in the English Garden.

The colours of Viktualienmarkt.

A beer garden at the Viktualienmarkt – a place where you can bring your own food.

A packed Allianz Arena – home of Bayern Munich – during the recent Audi Cup.

The Allianz Arena – where tours are also conducted – is best viewed at night.

And if you are at the Allianz Arena during match day – don’t forget to get your hands on that instagram worthy pretzel.

The religious side of Munich – the inside of the rebuilt Frauenkirche (Church of our Lady).

A city of monuments – the Wittelsbach Fountain.

Get up close and personal with the innovative lightweight tent roof on the Olympic Stadium through the tent roof climb.

BMW Museum at BMW World.

Kirche St. Coloman, Schwangau.

Simply breathtaking – the view of the Neuschwanstein Castle from Queen Mary’s Bridge (Marienbrucke).

View of Hohenschwangau from Neuschwanstein.

The gondola to Zugspitze – Germany’s highest mountain.

Top of Germany – Zugspitze – with a crane now constructing a gondola station.

Painted façade at Oberammergau.

Gateway to Austria – at Zugspitze.

The road to Altspitze.

Badersee Lake and the Zugspitze Massif.

More to follow …


 





A white pre-Christmas

25 12 2016

Scenes taken in snowy Sapporo – during a prelude to a storm that would bring the city and the Hokkaido prefecture its  heaviest December snowfall in half a century.

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In Singapore: The amazing human tower builders of Catalonia

20 10 2016

A Catalonian tradition that dates back to the 1700s, a human tower or castell building performance is being seen for the first time in Southeast in Asia. One of the many rich and interesting cultural practices of Spain as a whole, and of Catalonia, the tradition – usually performed on important festivals, is inscribed in the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

The Minyons de Terrassa at Kidzania, Sentosa.

Close to 300 castellers from the Minyons de Terrassa are in Singapore, brought in by Qatar Airways and the Catalonia Tourism Board. The group has recently broken the world record for the biggest human tower ever built.

Practice makes perfect.

Practice makes perfect.

The building of castells involve a huge group forming the all important base on top of which tiers of more castellers are progressively built up, supported by the shoulders of those in the tiers below. The bigger built of the castellers form the lower tiers with brave young children climbing higher up to form the summit.

Forming the base.

Forming the base.

Forming the lower tier.

The Minyons de Terrassa, who have performed at Raffles Place on 19 October and at Kidzania in Sentosa today, will hold two more performances tomorrow, 21 October 2016, at 4.30 pm for ITB Asia at the Marina Bay Sands Expo and Convention Centre and again at 5.30 pm at Customs House. On another note, Qatar Airways, flies from Singapore to Barcelona (and Madrid) via Doha’s Hamad International Airport. The airlines is offering special fares, which start from SGD 945, until 24 October 2016 for travel until 30 June 2017.

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10 reasons (out of possibly thousands more) to want to win that trip to Spain

18 09 2016

Spain with its rich history, diverse cultural and culinary influences and its much varied geography, is a country that offers a wealth of experiences to the traveller. There are many reasons to want to visit it, much more than the ten that follow and you now have a chance to find that out for free with TripZilla. The travel magazine and portal is looking at giving  a 12 D/11 N trip sponsored by the Spain Tourism Board and Turkish Airlines away in  Singapore, Indonesia and the Philippines through its SPAIN IN THE EYES OF SOUTHEAST ASIA giveaway.

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The contest is open only to residents of each of the countries mentioned who are between 23 and 55 years old. To take part, a minimum of three smart phone taken photographs (taken in their respective countries of residence) that participants feel best represents Spain, need to be submitted. Participants will have until 24 September 2016 to do this, after which one winner will be selected from each of the three countries. The trip to Spain being given away will include round-trip tickets, hotel accommodation and guided tours.

Just four simple steps are needed for the chance to win this valuable trip, which are:

  1. Sign-up @ https://www.tripzilla.com/spain-tourism-board-giveaway
  2. Take a minimum of 3 snapshots of places, items or colours in your country that you think best represents Spain
  3. Upload your photos onto the TripZilla Facebook page event with the hashtags #visitspain #winatriptospain #spainintheeyesofsoutheastasia
  4. Add a caption to describe why you think that place/item/colours in your photos best represents Spain

More information on the giveaway can be found at TripZilla.com and also TripZilla’s Facebook page event.


10 (out of possibly thousands more!) reasons to want to win that trip 

The stunning sight of Toledo rising above the River Tagus

The historic city of Toledo, as view from Cerro del Emperador.

Toledo, as viewed from Cerro del Emperador.

The vista from the Cerro de Emperador after dark is just as stunning ...

The vista from the Cerro del Emperador after dark is just as stunning …

As it is just before sunrise.

… as it also is just before the sunrise.

2

Quaint villages right out of a book of fairy tales

Twilight descends on O'Cebreiro, a hilltop village along the French route of the Camino de Santiago. The village church is where the Holy Grail is housed.

Twilight descends on O’Cebreiro, a hilltop village along the French route of the Camino de Santiago. The village church is where the Holy Grail is housed.

A traditional thatched roof stone hut known as a palloza at O'Cebreiro.

A traditional thatched roof stone hut known as a palloza at O’Cebreiro.

The village of La Riera in the Asturias.

The village of La Riera in the Asturias.

3

The opportunity to spend a night in a historic building

Parador Hostal Dos Reis Catolicos in Santiago de Compostela, built as a hospital in 1499.

Parador Hostal Dos Reis Catolicos in Santiago de Compostela, built as a hospital in 1499.

Inside the Parador Hostal dos Reis Católicos.

Inside the Parador Hostal dos Reis Católicos.

Parador Hostal de San Marcos in León, built in the 16th century as a military building.

Parador Hostal de San Marcos in León, built in the 16th century as a military building.

4

A wealth of UNESCO World Heritage Sites that span a period of more than 2000 years

The amazingly well preserved 2000 year old Roman aqueduct in Segovia.

The amazingly well preserved 2000 year old Roman aqueduct in Segovia.

The gondola, seen from the walkway.

A UNESCO World Heritage site from more recent times – the Vizcaya “hanging bridge”. 

5

Its gorgeous seaside towns

San Sebastian in the Basque Country.

San Sebastian in the Basque Country.

Castro Urdiales, a grogeous seaport in Cantabria close to Bilbao.

Castro Urdiales, a grogeous seaport in Cantabria close to Bilbao.

6

Some of the oldest university towns in Europe

The University of Salamanca, which dates back to 1134, is the oldest in Spain and the third oldest in Europe.

The University of Salamanca, which dates back to 1134, is the oldest in Spain and the third oldest in Europe.

Salamanca.

Salamanca.

The original university at the town of Alcalá de Henares goes back to 1293.

The original university at the town of Alcalá de Henares goes back to 1293.

Alcalá de Henares. The town is also known for its famous son, Miguel de Cervantes, Spain’s most celebrated literary figure.

Alcalá de Henares. The town is also known for its famous son, Miguel de Cervantes, Spain’s most celebrated literary figure.

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To learn about its rich and fascinating history, particularly that of the Rerconquest 

The reconquest - in which this cave in Covadonga in the Asturias, featured.

A cave in Covadonga in the Asturias, which featured in the launch of the Reconquest,  a significant event in Spain’s history that remains very much embedded in the Spanish psyche.

The walled medieval town of Ávila, whose walls date back to the 11th century and are said to be the best conserved of the age. The walls were constructed following the reconquest and repopulation of the area.

The walled medieval town of Ávila, whose walls date back to the 11th century and are said to be the best conserved of the age. The walls were constructed following the reconquest and repopulation of the area.

8

A set of still used pilgrimage routes that date back to the 9th Century

Pilgrims on the long road to Santiago de Compostela. A well used route is the Camino Frances, which involves a 780 km walking journey from the south of France.

Pilgrims on the long road to Santiago de Compostela. A well used route is the Camino Frances, which involves a 780 km walking journey from the south of France.

The Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, where the relics of St. James (Santiago), one of the 12 apostles, is kept.

The Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, where the relics of St. James (Santiago), one of the 12 apostles, is kept.

The city of Santiago de Compostela.

The city of Santiago de Compostela.

9

Its impressive Gothic cathedrals

Toledo Cathedral.

Toledo Cathedral.

Burgos Cathedral.

Burgos Cathedral.

Stained glass inside León Cathedral.

Stained glass inside León Cathedral.

The walled town of Segovia is topped by its impressive cathedral.

The walled city of Segovia is topped by its impressive cathedral.

10

The Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao

The Gueggenheim Museum in Bilbao.

The Gueggenheim Museum in Bilbao.

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Hanging on – the amazing hanging bridge near Bilbao

29 06 2016

I love bridges, especially ones on which supporting truss or cable stays structures add to their overall aesthetics.

One rather interesting looking bridge the sight of which I was particularly taken with, is the Puente Vizcaya (Bizkaia in Basque) or the Vizcaya Bridge. I managed a visit to it during a sojourn in the north of Spain in 2013. Straddling the Río Ibaizábal, close to where it spills into the Bay of Biscay, the bridge with its horizontal span elevated some 45 metres above the ground and supported by four lattice ironwork towers, is quite an amazing sight to behold.

The suspended gondola of the Vizcaya Bridge with Portugalete seen in the background.

The suspended gondola of the Vizcaya Bridge with Portugalete seen in the background.

The bridge, a so-called transporter bridge, is not what one might think of as bridge in the conventional sense. Rather than a roadway or walkway across which vehicular of pedestrian traffic is carried, a transporter bridge carries its load on a gondola that is suspended by wire-ropes from a moving trolley running across its horizontal span and is more akin to a ferry.

The Vizcaya Bridge.

The Vizcaya Bridge.

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The bridge in its early days (Gizmodo Australia).

A close-up of the gondola.

A close-up of the gondola.

Developed as a solution to allow the crossing of navigable waterways in areas where space and geography restrict the deployment of the long ramps that  would be necessary to carry vehicular traffic to the deck of bridges elevated high enough to clear shipping, the do have limitations in the volume and rate at which traffic can be moved across the gap and as a result have not seen widespread use. Less than thirty were built worldwide, mostly around the turn of the twentieth century.

The gondola is suspended using wire-ropes from a trolley running across its span.

The gondola is suspended using wire-ropes from a trolley running across its span.

The idea for the transporter bridge has been attributed to Charles Smith, an Englishman from Hartlepool. While his invention was made public in 1873, it wasn’t until two decades later in 1893 that the first such bridge, which was the Vizcaya, was completed. Designed by Basque architect Alberto de Palacio, a disciple of Gustave Eiffel (of the Eiffel tower fame), it sparked off a small wave of construction of several other transporter bridges.

A view of the trolley from the top of the bridge.

A view of the trolley from the top of the bridge.

Known also as “puente colgante” or “hanging bridge”, the Vizcaya Bridge as a structure, takes us back to the heyday of the industrial and maritime age in Bilbao and a time when the area’s deposits of iron-ore fed the hungry blast furnaces of Europe. This, as well as several other factors that include its dramatic presence and aesthetics,  the technical creativity it expresses, and its role in influencing the development of similar structures, has seen its inscription on the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Inscribed in 2006,  the Vizcaya Bridge now holds the distinction of being the only World Heritage site in the Basque Country.

A view of the moth of the Ibaizába estuary from the bridge.

A view of the moth of the Ibaizába estuary from the bridge.

The bridge is well worth a visit if you do find yourself in and around Bilbao, a city best known in these parts for its football team and the rather iconic Guggenheim Museum Bilbao. Besides the unique experience that crossing on its gondola offers, the bridge also features a walkway across its horizontal span, which provides not just a view of its trolley and operating mechanism but also a fantastic view of the towns of Getxo and Portugalete as well as the landscape around the mouth of the Ibaizábal estuary. More information on the bridge, access to its walkway and its UNESCO World Heritage listing can be found at the following links:

Portugalete fron the bridge.

Portugalete fron the bridge.

The gondola, seen from the walkway.

The gondola, seen from the walkway.

The walkway.

The walkway.

Getxo as seen from the bridge's walkway.

Getxo as seen from the bridge’s walkway.

The Ibaizába River.

The Ibaizába Rive, a passage for shipping destined for the old docks of Bilbao.

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The Vizcaya Bridge seen through the buildings of Portugalete.

The Vizcaya Bridge seen through the buildings of Portugalete.

 





A visit to a charcoal factory

23 06 2016

The business of charcoal making, which in the region makes use of wood from the abundant mangrove forests, has long ceased in Singapore. The last factory, on the evidence of a 1972 Straits Times article, was possibly on Pulau Tekong and it only is in some of our neighbouring countries that the production of what some may consider to be black gold can be found.

The charcoal factory at Kuala Sepetang.

The charcoal factory at Kuala Sepetang.

One production centre that I had the opportunity to visit is the factory at Kuala Sepetang, located along the northern Perak coastline, just 15 kilometres from the charming old mining town of Taiping. The factory, operated by a Mr. Chuah Chow Aun, has a reputation for the best charcoal in Asia and does a thriving trade in meeting the demand from the large Japanese market.

Charcoal kilns, the contruction knowhow of which interestingly, was brought in by the Japanese during the war.

Charcoal kilns, the contruction knowhow of which interestingly, was brought in by the Japanese during the war. The logs with barks stripped from them, are ready for the kilns.

The factory is well worth a visit just for the setting it finds itself in. Its long zinc roofed wooden sheds against which stacks of bakau wood logs are arranged, against the backdrop of the beautiful Matang mangrove forest on the banks of the Sungai Kapal Changkol, makes the scene it presents one that somehow looks like one that could well belong in a good old Western movie.

Another view of the factory. Logs are stripped of their barks in the area where they are unloaded from boats that bring them in from the nearby mangrove forest.

Another view of the factory. Logs are stripped of their barks in the area where they are unloaded from boats that bring them in from the nearby mangrove forest.

The sheds are where the main process of turning the wood is carried out. In them one finds rows of smoking kilns, in which the wood is heated and not, as is popularly believed, burnt, with the aim of removing water – which makes up the bulk of its weight when harvested, from the logs. It is a long, tedious and rather labour intensive process that is employed, which starts with the unloading of logs harvested primarily from 30 year old bakau minyak (Rhizophora apiculata) trees for which a sapling is planted for every tree that is harvested. The logs, which measure up to 5 inches in diameter, are prepared for the kilns by stripping their barks before they are stacked against the kilns before being moved in.

Logs of various diameters.

Logs of various diameters.

I was rather surprised to hear that it was in fact the Japanese that brought in the charcoal making techniques that are employed at Kuala Sepetang during the occupation. This process, involves the heating of the kilns – in which logs are positioned vertically on blocks of clay to keep them off the ground before the opening is reduced sufficiently in size to serve as a firing box, for a period of about 10 days. At this stage the temperature within the kilns is raised about 85° C. After this comes a second stage of heating for which the opening is reduced further, for another 12 days during which temperatures are raised to about  220° C. The kiln is left to cool for another week or so before the cured wood can be taken out.

A kiln opening, through which logs are moved into the kiln.

A kiln opening, through which logs are moved into the kiln.

Logs are arranged vertically on clay blocks.

An example of how logs are vertically arranged and the clay blocks on which they are made to stand on.

The first stage during with a larger opening is maintained at the firing box.

The first stage during with a larger opening is maintained at the firing box.

Experience plays an important part in the process and is monitored only through observation of the vapour that billows out of an opening in the kiln. From 1500 logs or about 40 to 50 tonnes of wood that is placed in the kilns before the start of firing, only 10 tonnes of is left as charcoal – the rest of the weight having been expelled as vapour. The vapour however does not go to waste and is in its condensed form, sold as mangrove wood vinegar, which is said to repel mosquitoes and cure common skin problems.

The opening is reduced during the second stage.

The opening is reduced during the second stage.

A kiln in use.

A kiln in use.

The factory, Khay Hor Holdings Sdn. Bhd. or more commonly referred to as the Kuala Sepetang Charcoal Factory, is open for visits. Arrangements can be made for guided tours by contacting Mr. Chuah at +60 12 5739563. More information is available at the Kuala Sepetang Charcoal Factory Facebook Page and at this link: The Charcoal Factory.

Vapour coming out of a kiln - the vapour, which is used to monitor the process , is collected and sold in its condense form as mangrove wood vinegar.

Vapour coming out of a kiln – the vapour, which is used to monitor the process , is collected and sold in its condense form as mangrove wood vinegar.

The entrance to the factory.

The entrance to the factory.

 





Green fields and purple waters

2 01 2016

A veritable feast of colour awaits the visitor to Sekinchan. A seemingly laid back town along the northern Selangor coast, it has, in the time since it featured in the 2011 TV series “The Seeds of Life”, become popular as a destination for an excursion with the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur less than an hour and a half’s drive away. Set in the midst of vibrant green paddy fields and boasting of a riverine harbour painted by a substantial fleet of fishing boats, wooden jetties and the river’s brown, almost purple waters, Sekinchan is a destination that is especially popular with photographers.

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The river mouth near Pantai Redang, Sekinchan

There are two very distinct sides to Sekinchan, each set on either side of Malaysian Federal Route 5. The main thoroughfare that brings the busloads of visitors into the town, also divides it into a landward side on the east in which most of the town’s agricultural activities take place, and a seaward side in the west where its harbour and its fishing related activities are concentrated in. The rather picturesque paddy fields in the east, said to be among the highest yielding in the country, are also amongst the country’s most photographed.

The paddy fields.

The paddy fields.

Another view of the paddy fields.

Another view of the paddy fields.

More paddy fields.

More paddy fields.

A wooden bridge over an irrigation canal.

A wooden bridge over an irrigation canal.

The western side, with its crowd of boats and jetties in what is known locally as Ang Mo Kang or Red Hair Harbour, also provides many opportunities for the photographer, as does the nearby Pantai Redang (Redang Beach). It is just south of Pantai Redang that the river which plays host to the fishing harbour spills into the sea, providing the observer with a seascape at low tide coloured by a rare mix of hues:  the purple of the river, the mud brown of the tidal flats, the grey of the shallow waters of the sea, all against the blue of the sky.

The fishing harbour.

The fishing harbour.

The purple stream.

The purple stream spilling into the sea close to Pantai Redang.

Fish being sorted out for sale.

Fish being sorted out.

Pantai Redang, is also where the colour red features rather prominently. It is where the wishing tree stands, painted almost  red by thousands of ribbons on the hopes and wishes of many have been penned. In the shadow of the tree stands the equally red Datuk Kong (拿督公) temple from which one can obtain the weighted red ribbons that must be thrown up to the tree after one’s wishes are inscribed.

The wishing tree at Pantai Redang.

The wishing tree at Pantai Redang.

The Datuk Kong temple.

The Datuk Kong temple.

A window into the Datuk Kong temple.

A window into the Datuk Kong temple.

Besides the many attractions (there are many more) the visitor should pay a visit to – should one have the time, a visit to one of the many seafood restaurants in town offering the freshest of catches for a meal is a must before hitting the road. A quick visit to the old parts of town on the eastern side is also recommended for its quaint looking shops, as is a stop at one of the fruit stalls lining the road out of town for what must surely be Sekinchan’s best offering – its sweet and extremely juicy large green mangoes.

A seafood restaurant.

A seafood restaurant.

A shopfront in the old town.

A shopfront in the old town.

An old kopitiam.

An old kopitiam.

A temple.

A temple.

Fruits on display at a roadside fruit stall.

Fruits on display at a roadside fruit stall – fruits – especially the delicious huge juicy mangoes seen on the top, are recommended buys from Sekinchan.


 





Seeking the familiar in the unfamiliar

1 01 2016

I love a wander around the streets of the Malaysian capital, Kuala Lumpur. KL, as the city is fondly referred to, not unlike Singapore, has seen an incredible transformation over the last three decades. But unlike Singapore, which has discarded much of what that made it what it was, KL has retained pockets of of the old world; a world that gives me that sense of familiarity that is missing from the streets of the city I spent most of my life in.

One area I am particularly fond of taking a stroll through is in the part of KL around Petaling Street. Much about it has changed – and is still changing, in its back lanes and kaki-kaki-lima (five-foot-ways) I am able to find enough familiar to me from my excursions to it of two and a half decades past. Still around are the busy places of worship and the old but now shrinking back lane wet market and familiar food-stalls at Madras Lane. The old shophouses along Jalan Sultan are also still there, although some of the trades found in them – such as an old denture workshop, seemed in the two years since I last visited the street, to have closed for good.

A peek into the late 19th century Kuan Ti temple at Jalan Tun H S Lee.

A peek into the late 19th century Kuan Ti temple at Jalan Tun H S Lee.

A five-foot-way along Jalan Tun H S Lee.

A five-foot-way along Jalan Tun H S Lee.

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The front of an old pet bird shop along Jalan Sultan.

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Kneading dough at a back lane pau stall.

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A back lane kopitiam (coffee shop) at a back lane flea market, Pasar Karat.

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The back lane wet market at Madras Lane.

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The well-known Four-Eyed (bespectacled) One – Sze Ngan Chye roast duck cart along Petaling Street.

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Slaughtered birds at a live chicken stall at the wet market.

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KL favourites in a back lane – the Madras Lane Yong Tau Foo and Laska stalls.





Darkness and light, Lower Manhattan

18 11 2015

Lower Mahattan, seen in the magical light of the bright spring sunshine in April this year:

The East Coast Memorial at Battery Park.

The East Coast Memorial at Battery Park and the Statue of Liberty.

The rotunda of the Alexander Hamilton US Customs House at Bowling Green.

The rotunda of the Alexander Hamilton US Customs House at Bowling Green.

A staircase inside the Alexander Hamilton US Customs House.

A staircase inside the Alexander Hamilton US Customs House.

Bowling Green.

Buildings at Bowling Green.

Inside the Alexander Hamilton US Customs House.

Inside the Alexander Hamilton US Customs House.

Trinity Church as viewed from Wall Street.

Trinity Church as viewed from Wall Street.

Detail on an entrance door to Trinity Church.

Detail on an entrance door to Trinity Church.

Darkness and light, death and life, Trinity Church Cemetery.

Darkness and light, death and life, Trinity Church Cemetery.

View from the yard of St. Paul's Chapel.

View from the yard of St. Paul’s Chapel.

City Hall Park.

City Hall Park.

New York City Hall.

New York City Hall.

The Brooklyn Bridge.

The Brooklyn Bridge.

Thomas Paine Park and the New York County Supreme Court.

Thomas Paine Park and the New York County Supreme Court.

Light and shadow.

Where the light shines – the Police Building and the view down Grand Street.

Lafayette Street (near intersection with Kenmare Street).

Lafayette Street near its intersection with Kenmare Street.

Lafayette Street.

Lafayette Street.

Washington Square.

Washington Square.

Washington Square.

Washington Square.

Union Square.

Union Square.

 





The beautiful terminal in Hoboken

30 04 2015

I never tire of railway stations, especially the grand stations of old in which one can quite easily be transported back to an age when rail travel might have seemed to be all about the romance of it.

Hoboken Terminal.

Hoboken Terminal.

And its gorgeous interior.

And its gorgeous interior.

A grand old station I found myself passing through quite recently was in Hoboken, New Jersey, just across the Hudson from the Big Apple. Being on the waterfront, it was built in 1907 to also connect with trolley buses and ferry services to Lower Manhattan. This was later extended to the subway. As an early intermodal transport hub completed before the first road tunnels were dug under the Hudson, the terminal served an important role in the movement of man and material across the river to a New York in the midst of transformation. In its heyday, the terminal boasted a YMCA residence,completed in 1922 and hosted a mail sorting facility.

Hoboken Terminal at the time of its opening (source: Wikipedia – public domain).

The ferry slips at the terminal.

The ferry slips at the terminal.

The station is one that oozes with the charm of the old world, seen especially in its Beaux-Arts inspired architecture. It is a style found in several iconic stations of the era, one of which was Paris’ beautiful former Gare d’Orsay, now the Musée d’Orsay. Outwardly, the terminal’s copper clad appearance takes us back to the age of its construction. The copper, added for fire resistance – a requirement that was especially necessary seeing that the previous terminal had been consumed by a huge fire just two years prior to its construction, was quite readily available. There was as an excess of the metal procured for the erection of the area’s most famous landmark, the Statue of Liberty, which would otherwise have had to be sold for scrap.

The copper clad exterior.

The copper clad exterior.

The most eye-catching and charming part of the terminal is its Waiting Room. The spacious room has a ceiling that rises to a height of 55 feet (about 17 metres) and is crowned by the most impressive of skylights. The daylight that filters through the skylight, constructed of Tiffany stained glass, casts a warm and welcoming glow on the limestone and bronze finishes of the luxuriously decorated room; as do its bronze chandeliers in the hours of darkness.

The Waiting Room and the Tiffany glass skylight.

The Waiting Room and the Tiffany glass skylight.

Another look at the Waiting Room and its magnificent skylight.

Another look at the Waiting Room and its magnificent skylight.

Looking around, one can understand why Hoboken Terminal has been described as the most impressive and striking of the five terminals that were found along the New Jersey Hudson waterfront. It now is the last of the five still is in use.  Another survivor, the Central Railroad of New Jersey terminal at Jersey City, from which operations had been terminated in 1967, stands today only as a conserved building within Liberty State Park. The Jersey City terminal and Hoboken Terminal, have both been designated as historic sites and are listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

The former Central Railroad of New Jersey Terminal at the Liberty State Park waterfront.

The former Central Railroad of New Jersey Terminal at the Liberty State Park waterfront.

Hoboken Terminal’s architect, Kenneth Murchison, was a graduate of Columbia and the Paris based École nationale supérieure des beaux-arts and a notable practitioner of the Beaux-Arts style. Hoboken was one of several railway station projects Murchison was involved with. His work includes another station for the Delaware, Lackawanna and Western Railroad (for which Hoboken was built) at Scranton in 1908, which has since been transformed into a hotel.

A look at the train platforms and the shed, an innovation at the time. The low sheds used in Hoboken Terminal were provided with open channels above the tracks to  allow steam and exhaust gases to vent.

A look at the train platforms and the shed, an innovation at the time. The sheds were provided with open channels above the tracks to allow steam and exhaust gases to vent.

Following the opening of the Holland Tunnel at the end of the 1920s, the Lincoln Tunnel at the end of the 1930s, and the introduction of three new subway services across the Hudson in the 1930s, demand for railway and ferry services began to fall off. The gradual decline was to lead to the Delaware, Lackawanna and Western Railroad merging with the Erie Railroad in 1960 to form a loss making Erie Lackawanna (EL) Railroad, which in 1970 scrapped inter-city services. By this time ferry services had already stopped in 1967. Conrail was to take over the running of EL’s commuter train services in 1976, before that passed into the hands of the State-owned New Jersey Transit (NJ Transit) in 1983.

Passengers waiting at commuter train platform at the terminal.

Passengers waiting at commuter train platform at the terminal.

The declining fortunes of the railway and ferry took its toll on the terminal and its upkeep. A early victim of this was the original iconic tower, which had to be dismantled in the 1950s due to concerns about its structural integrity. The station lost much of its gloss by the time ferry services had stopped and it wasn’t until 1995 that an effort was made, by NJ Transit, to restore the station to its original glory.

A ticket dispenser at the train platform.

A ticket dispenser at the train platform.

A ticket counter inside the Waiting Room.

A ticket counter inside the Waiting Room.

The first phase of the effort, which lasted until 2003, involved repairs and replacement work on the terminal’s structure, roofs and canopies, as well as a refurbishment of the majestic Waiting Room. A second phase was initiated in 2005. This gave the terminal back its iconic tower, a reconstruction, in 2007. Some of the efforts were unfortunately undone when the terminal and its Waiting Room (as well as much of Hoboken) was battered by Hurricane Sandy in 2012, which required further restoration work.

The reconstructed tower.

The reconstructed tower.

Wooden benches in the waiting room required mould remediation work in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.

Wooden benches in the waiting room required mould remediation work in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.

The second phase also saw five of the six unused ferry slips refurbished in 2011. Ferry services have since been reintroduced. Boarding of ferries is now carried out at the level of the rail tracks and not on the second level, which had originally been equipped with a large and beautiful concourse. The second level is now used by NJ Transit and is closed to the public.

The ferry terminal.

The ferry terminal.

The ferry berth.

The ferry berth.

A stairway to a lost heaven - the closed second level of the terminal.

A stairway to a lost heaven – the closed second level of the terminal.

A revival of fortunes came with the restoration. The terminal today is a major hub with a better designed integration of transport services. Services now also include the Hudson-Bergen Light Rail Transit (LRT) system that was introduced in 2001. With its new tower in place, the station has also regained its prominence along the lower Hudson and is today a work of architecture, even if not for the charm of the old world it exudes, that is a joy to behold.

The LRT terminal.

The LRT terminal.

More information on the beautiful station, its history and architecture can be found at the following links:

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The old university town of Alcalá de Henares

21 04 2015

I love old university towns and I got to have a look at one of Spain’s oldest, Alcalá de Henares, quite recently. The university established there had its origins in 1293 as Estudio de Escuelas Generales de Alcalá and became the University of Compultense (Universitas Complutensis) in 1499 through the vision of a important church figure at the time as Spain was entering into its Golden Age, a move that was to transform the former college to one of Spain’s most important seats of learning and also lead to the expansion of Alcalá into a planned university town. Although the university has since been moved to Madrid, the city of Alcalá de Henares’ still retains much of the flavour of the old university town and has seen a revival of the old university as the University of Alcalá in more recent times.

A courtyard inside the historic Colegio de San Ildefonso of the University of University of Alcalá.

A courtyard inside the historic Colegio de San Ildefonso of the University of University of Alcalá.

I arrived in Alcalá de Henares in the quiet of a Saturday morning and the first glimpse I had of the city was of its quiet, neat and ordered streets lined with brick and sandstone buildings coloured gold by the light of the morning sun. Alcalá, some 30 kilometres from Madrid, seemed distant enough to be isolated from the hustle and bustle of Spain’s capital city; the dignified air of calm unsurprising perhaps of a city that was reinvented as a seat of learning.

A peek at Alcalá de Henares.

There is much more than meets the eye in Alcalá de Henares.

A street in Alcalá de Henares.

A street in Alcalá de Henares.

What does surprise in Alcalá is that perhaps there is much more of it than its early weekend demeanour does suggest,  the city’s glitter is one that glows not just due to to golden light of the morning, but the that of the city’s fascinatingly storied past.  The city’s rich history, which has been recognised by the listing of its historic and university precincts have been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1998, goes back well beyond the university or even the Moorish origins of its name, Alcalá – derived from the Arabic Al-Qal’at or fortress. This I was to very quickly realise two hours into my stay in the city.

The quiet streets of the university precinct on a Saturday morning,

The quiet streets of the university precinct on a Saturday morning.

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My visit to Alcalá de Henares was the first stop in what was to turn out to be an amazing journey that also included visits to four other UNESCO World Heritage cities close to Madrid. The trip was made possible by the Spanish World Heritage Cities Group (Ciudades Patrimonio de la Humanidad de España), the Spanish Tourism Board and Thai Airways. Alcalá de Henares, located close to Madrid’s Barajas airport, made it a very convenient first stop.

City Hall.

City Hall as seen from Plaza de Cervantes.

Another view of the university precinct.

Another view of the university precinct.

One of the things that becomes very quickly apparent about Alcalá, is its association with Spain’s most celebrated literary figure, Miguel de Cervantes; Cervantes’ work, Don Quixote, an icon of a masterpiece that is considered to be one of the most important works in Spanish literature. Alcalá is where the famous writer came into the world during the days of the Spanish Golden Age and Alcalá’s heyday in 1547, and in Alcalá, we find all things Cervantes, including in and around the city’s main square that is very predictably named after him.

The statue of Cervantes in the centre of Plaza de Cervantes.

The statue of Cervantes in the centre of Plaza de Cervantes.

The main square, Plaza de Cervantes, is where the medieval town of Alcalá and the post-medieval university town meet. The formerly walled medieval town in which there was a Arab, Jewish and Chirstian quarter, lies to the east of the square. To the west is the university town and its ordered streets. In the centre of the square, the centre perhaps of Cervantes’ Alcalá, is where the writer is immortalised in a statue that stands high over the square, holding a quill in his hand.

The northern half of Plaza de Cervantes.

The northern half of Plaza de Cervantes.

Plaza de Cervantes by night.

Plaza de Cervantes by night.

It was to the square that I headed out to almost as soon as I put my bags down at the hotel, resisting the urge to climb into the very inviting king sized bed in the beautifully furnished room of the hotel. This despite the lack of sleep having stepped off only hours before from  the 12 hour intercontinental flight.

The rooms of the parador as seen from the very peaceful roof top garden.

The rooms of the parador as seen from the very peaceful roof top garden.

The room in the parador.

The room in the parador.

The hotel, Alcalá de Henares’ is surprisingly modern as a Parador. Surprising because the limited experiences I have had of staying in a paradors, were of ones in which the tone of the decor of the rooms seemed to match the history of the buildings they would be found in. Paradors, luxury hotels run by the Spanish government, are usually found in historic buildings such as former palaces, castles and monasteries.

The parador in Alcalá.

The parador in Alcalá.

The cloisters of the former Convento Santo Tomas.

The cloisters of the former Convento Santo Tomas.

The old and the new parts of the parador.

The old and the new parts of the parador.

In the case of the parador in Alcalá, while it is rather interestingly set up in a 17th Century former Dominican monastery, the Convento de Santo Tomás that has also seen use as a military barracks in the 19th century and a prison in more recent times, its transformation into a parador has given it an ultra modern feel. The parador’s beautifully furnished rooms and spa, does make it all that more difficult to want to leave its premises.

Another view of the cloisters - through a second level window.

Another view of the cloisters – through a second level window.

The roof top garden by night.

The roof top garden by night.

At Plaza de Cervantes, the gaze of a Cervantes is towards the the plaza’s north. Following his gaze and turning west is one of the main cobbled streets of the medieval Jewish quarter, the Calle Mayor, along which the house in which Cervantes was born is found. Furnished with furniture from the era, the two-storey house with an inner courtyard typical of old Castille, is now a museum that is a must visit, especially for all interested in Cervantes’ life and work.

Calle Mayor in the medieval quarter.

Calle Mayor in the medieval quarter.

Another look at Calle Mayor.

Another look at Calle Mayor.

The birthplace of Cervantes.

The birthplace of Cervantes.

My travel companions in the courtyard of the birthplace of Cervantes.

My travel companions in the courtyard of the birthplace of Cervantes.

An exhibit depicting a scene from a puppet play at the birthplace of Cervantes.

An exhibit depicting a scene from a puppet play at the birthplace of Cervantes.

Furnishings for a sanitary  room from the period.

Furnishings for a sanitary room from the period.

The dining room.

The dining room.

It was just past Cervantes’ birthplace on the Calle Mayor that a link to pre-Moorish past was to leap out at me to the beat of of a march. Making its way down the street was a religious procession. While being one very typical in the sense of the Iberian traditions as well as one commemorating a post medieval event, the 1568 return of the relics of city’s patron saints, “los Santos Niños”, Saints Justus and Pastor, the procession also tells of Alcalá’s links to Roman times. The saints, both children, had been martyred for their faith in the year 304 AD, at a time when a Roman settlement, Complutum, was established there.

The statues of los Santos Niños being led through the streets of the medieval quarter.

The statues of los Santos Niños being led through the streets of the medieval quarter.

Figures seen during the procession.

Figures seen during the procession.

Don Quixote meets the procession along Calle Mayor.

Don Quixote meets the procession along Calle Mayor.

Plaza de Cervantes being at the divide of the old and new Alcalá, is always a good place to start with orientating oneself with Alcalá, especially when one gets to do so high above it with an ascent of 109 steps to the top of the tower of Santa María (Torre de Santa María). Located at the square’s southern edge, the 15th century tower that was the bell tower of the Church of Santa María la Mayor, is one of the few parts of the church that escaped destruction during Spanish Civil War. The view it provides, besides that of a close-up of the storks that seem to be nesting and roosting on top of just about every red rooftop and the spire in the city, is unparalleled and provides a sense of how the city had evolved.

Torre de Santa Maria.

Torre de Santa Maria.

Nesting storks perched on a spire.

Nesting storks perched on a spire.

A stork in flight.

A stork in flight.

A view south from the tower.

A view south from the tower.

The view north across Plaza de Cervantes. The medieval quarter is to the left of teh square and the university precinct to the right.

The view north across Plaza de Cervantes. The medieval quarter is to the left of the square and the university precinct to the right.

Lying in the shadows of the tower, are some of what has survived of the ruined church. One of the attractions the ruins contain is a reproduction of its destroyed baptismal font with pieces of the original font embedded into it. The original font was the one that featured in Cervantes’ baptism in October 1547 and its recreation can now found in the surviving El Oidor chapel. The chapel along with the Antezana chapel are where an Interpretation Centre for the Universes of Cervantes (Los Universos de Cervantes) is now housed. What is also interesting is that the archway that leads to the El Oidor chapel is beautifully decorated with a 16th century grille and beautifully executed Mudéjar plasterwork.

Inside the El Oidor chapel.

Inside the El Oidor chapel.

The 16th century grille and the arch decorated with Mudéjar plasterwork at the entrance to the El Oidor chapel.

The 16th century grille and the arch decorated with Mudéjar plasterwork at the entrance to the El Oidor chapel.

A piece of the original font that is embedded into the reproduction.

A piece of the original font that is embedded into the reproduction.

Besides the ruins, there are also several other interesting historical structures around the square. One I was able to visit is in the south-eastern corner close to the tower, a two-storey Castilian courtyard building from the 16th century that served as a guesthouse or hostel for university students. The house’s structure has been well preserved along with the courtyard and its laundry well. Used by the municipality in more recent times, two rooms on the upper floor of the building have now been reoccupied by the university.

The courtyard of the hostel.

The courtyard of the hostel.

The laundry well.

The laundry well.

A structure of significance lies on the western side of the square. This, the Corral de Comedias, constructed as an open air or courtyard theatre or corral de comedias in 1601, is the oldest in the country to have survived and also one of the oldest theatres still in use in Europe.

Inside the Corral de Comedias.

Inside the Corral de Comedias.

The stage and the space below the stage, which includes a well.

The stage and the space below the stage, which includes a well.

Modelled after Spain’s first purpose built theatre, the Corral de la Cruz, Alcalá’s corral was originally laid out as all early purpose built theatres in Spain were, replicating the layout and arrangement found in the makeshift theatres that preceded them. The makeshift theatres utilised courtyards of inns and houses and had a stage placed at one end and as with the makeshift arrangements, the purpose-built ones that were a natural progression also featured balconies and boxes on the upper levels of the three free sides, where the audience, segregated according to social status and gender, could watch the performance from.

Stage machinery.

Stage machinery.

The Corral de Comedias before restoration (source: http://www.corraldealcala.com)

Over time, the Corral de Comedias underwent several transfromations, including the addition of the horseshoe shaped theatrical seating facing the stage in 1831. From 1945 to 1971, the theatre saw use as a cinema, after which it was abandoned. It wasn’t until the 1980s that a massive effort was made to restore it, which was completed only in 2003 when the grand dame’s dignity was restored through its use as a theatre.

The restoration has uncovered some of the original foundations.

The restoration has uncovered some of the original foundations.

As well as provided an idea of the width of the original theatre boxes.

As well as provided an idea of the width of the original theatre boxes.

One of the surprising things I learnt about Alcalá, was that it was here that the seeds of the Spanish sponsored adventure led by Christopher Columbus into the new world was planted. The city, serving as the location of the first meeting of the Venetian with Queen Isabella and where the expedition was planned, the events taking place in and around the very majestic Archbishop’s palace tucked away in an area of the city northwest of the main square.

A statue of Isabella by the Archbishop's Palace.

A statue of Isabella by the Archbishop’s Palace.

The palace is especially interesting in that it was built as a residence for the Archbishop of Toledo, the highest ranking member of the clergy in the Catholic church in Spain and through much of Castille’s and Spain’s history, one of the country’s most influential positions, in 1209. Its architecture bears the influences of its long history and within its walls resided not just powerful church men, bit also served as the residence of kings and queens, including Ferdinand and Isabella and in which their daughter Catherine of Aragon, the future first wife of Henry VIII and the Queen of England, was born in 1485. It the annulment of marriage to Catherine that Henry’ sought that was to lead to the split of the English Church from Papal authority in the 1530s.

The Archbishop's  Palace, built in 1209 as the residence of the Archbishop of Toledo.

The Archbishop’s Palace, built in 1209 as the residence of the Archbishop of Toledo.

The Church, or rather an important member of its leadership, was to have a significant influence on the revival of the city’s fortunes, which fell into decline following the expulsion of the Jews in 1496. Cardinal Cisneros, Queen Isabella’s one time confessor and a powerful member of the clergy, established a university in 1499 that was to become one of Spain’s most important seats of learning. The buildings of the university, which would be centered around the magnificent edifice of the Colegio de San Ildefonso put up by Cisneros east of the medieval town, to which I will devote more detail to in a separate post, has to be one of the highlights of a visit to Alcalá.

The Colegio de San Ildefonso built by Cardinal Cisneros.

The Colegio de San Ildefonso built by Cardinal Cisneros.

A visit to Alcalá, as in the rest of Spain, would of course, not be complete without indulging in its gastronomic offerings. There is a mix of old and new, traditional and fusion that can be found along the city’s streets. The parador for one, offers two restaurants, in which a full meal can be savoured for a reasonable outlay and is great value for money. One is in the more traditional setting of the Restaurante Hostería del Estudiante across the street from the main lobby of the parador at the former Colegio Menor de San Jerónimo. The other in a more contemporary setting of the Restaurante de Santo Tomás set in the cloisters of the former Convento de Santo Tomás.

The traditional setting of the Restaurante Hostería del Estudiante.

The traditional setting of the Restaurante Hostería del Estudiante.

There is also the chance to savour the more modern interpretations of traditional dishes in more contemporary settings in Alcalá, with restaurants such Plademunt in the quiet streets of the new part of the city and Ambigú in the historic quarter, just by the Teatro Salón Cervantes. Both restaurants are helmed by  young culinary talents. On offer at Plademunt are the extraordinary tapas creations of Ivan Plademunt that feature some very traditional and hearty working class comfort foods from the region such as migas and atascaburras as well as pinchos of pintxos from the Basque country.

Plademunt.

Plademunt.

Migas, a traditional dish made from a base of breadcrumbs.

Migas, a traditional dish made from a base of breadcrumbs.

Ivan Plademunt demonstrating how Atascaburras is made.

Ivan Plademunt demonstrating how Atascaburras is made.

Pinchos.

Pinchos.

The Teatro Salón Cervantes on Calle Cervantes.

The Teatro Salón Cervantes on Calle Cervantes.

Ambigú’s offerings include many favourites including grilled octopus, sardines and a dessert to die for, torrija. The utterly sinful dessert, traditionally served during Lent and the Holy Week, is made from a base of bread soaked in milk and is similar to the English bread and butter pudding, only better!

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Offerings at Ambigú include the utterly sinful torrija.

Offerings at Ambigú include the utterly sinful torrija.

It was a pity lunch at Ambigú can on the back of a visit to Esencias Del Gourmet on Calle Mayor just around Cervantes’s birthplace . The proprietor of Esencias Del Gourmet holds a fun yet enlightening food and wine appreciation experience, which was to provide me not only with a much better appreciation of wine and how fine foods can complement wine and bring out its flavours, but also a full stomach that left me with little room for much more.

Esencias Del Gourmet on Calle Mayor.

Esencias Del Gourmet on Calle Mayor.

Wine appreciation experience at Esencias del Gourmet.

Wine appreciation experience at Esencias del Gourmet.

Unseen Alcalá - the former Women's prison behind the parador.

Unseen Alcalá – the former women’s prison behind the parador.

The entrance to the former women's prison after dark.

The entrance to the former women’s prison after dark.

 





Strange spaces: the mound of ears

14 12 2014

I first caught sight of the Mimizuka (耳塚) in the fading light of dusk. What can best be described as a mound of earth topped with a gorinto – a five-tiered pagoda often used as gravestones; the Mimizuka looked mysterious and curiously out of place against the backdrop of the line of low lying roofs silhouetted against the twilight sky. Surrounded by what largely is a quiet residential neighbourhood in the Higashiyama district of of Kyoto, the mound, I was to discover, stands as a relic of a brutal past.

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Translated from Japanese as “Mound of Ears”, it is where the remains of tens of thousands of humans are buried. Originally named as the “Mound of Noses” or Hanazuka (鼻塚), the remains it contains are in fact noses – those that were severed from at least 38,000 Koreans killed during the Japanese military expeditions into the peninsula initiated by Toyotomi Hideyoshi at the end of the 1500s. Preserved in brine and shipped to Japan as trophies, the noses were buried at the location in 1597 during the time of the second invasion of Korea. 

It is in an area that is very much associated with Toyotomi Hideyoshi that one finds the rather macabre monument, just down the very generously proportioned Shomen-dori (正面通) that runs west from the Toyokuni Jinja (豊国神社), a shrine dedicated to the cruel but much revered daimyo.

The area is also where the grand Hoko-ji (方広寺) temple housing the great Buddha of Kyoto was put up by Toyotomi Hideyoshi – intended to rival the Daibutsu, or giant Buddha, of Nara, in scale. Much of the temple, construction of which began in 1586, and its Buddha was destroyed in an earthquake in 1596  and only its bell has survived to this day.

More information can on the little known Mimizuka can be found in a New York Times article written for the 400th anniversary of the mound, Japan, Korea and 1597: A Year That Lives in Infamy as well as in a Wikipedia entry. More on the Hoko-ji, the Toyokuni Jinja and the area can also be found at this site.





A life-changing slice of toast

22 10 2014

P1040768It is going to be hard to look at the humble kaya loti (kaya toast in local speak) in the same way again. Long a breakfast item for the man-on-the-street, it now finds itself elevated into one of two life-changing Singapore experiences for the visitor – thanks to Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2015 in which Singapore tops the list of ten countries to visit next year.

To celebrate the Singapore’s elevation to the top of the pile, which in part is due to the fact that Singapore celebrates its 50th anniversary of full independence next year,  Singapore Tourism Board (STB) / Lonely Planet decided to bring out the best in kaya – the sweet paste sometimes referred to as “coconut egg jam” made from coconut milk, pandan, sugar and eggs, that can be irresistible on a buttered slice of toast, at a hands-on event at 2am Dessert Bar on Tuesday.

An more creative variation on the kaya toast - a kaya toast cocktail.

An more creative variation on the kaya toast – a kaya toast cocktail.

There is nothing not to love about kaya toast, which in many ways, is representative of what Singapore is as a country – the fusion of many influences and one that continues to evolve. Kaya and kaya toast, besides in the many more traditional variations in which one can find it served today, also provides the inspiration for evolving food and beverage creations –  two of which came to light at yesterdays event.

Variations on what started out as a humble breakfast dish.

Variations on what started out as a humble breakfast dish.

The first, is the creation of the much celebrated pastry chef, Janice Wong, the creative energy behind 2am. Reputed to have herself blindfolded so as not to allow what she creates be influenced by what she sees, Janice gave an introduction to “Shades of Green” – a dessert in which flavours many who have grown up in Singapore would quite easily identify with are reinterpreted. The dessert, which I got an opportunity to try assembling, discharging a spray of coco-mousse into two unfortunate participants in the process; features a custard of pandan flavoured palm sugar (gula melaka) is combined with gula melaka ice cream, coco-mousse, pistachio sponge and pistachio crumble, and is topped with a kuih bang kit meringue.

Janice Wong of 2am Dessert Bar.

Janice Wong of 2am Dessert Bar.

Shades of Green.

Shades of Green.

Shades of Green was quickly followed by more shades of green in the form of a kaya-making demo, after which came what to me was the highlight – putting together a kaya-toast cocktail conceived by cocktail bar Bitters and Love. A combination of rum, lemon juice, sugar, honey, peach liqueur, egg white and a dash of kaya, it does put an interesting twist on the lori kaya.

The ingredients of traditional kaya.

The ingredients of traditional kaya.

Putting a new twist both on Singapore and kaya loti, is Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2015. Of Singapore, Lonely Planet has this to say: “As one of the world’s most multi-cultural cities, Singapore is always celebrating something. But Asia’s smallest state has an extra reason to put on her party hat in 2015 for it’s golden jubilee”. There is indeed much to celebrate in the cultural crossroads that is Singapore. While the city-state’s rapid modernisation, in which it has discarded too much of its fascinating past, has shifted emphasis on the development of mega-attractions and the staging of gala-events; there is that curious mix of age-old traditions and architecture with the ultra-modern that does makes Singapore, where the Lonely Planet says answering the door in one’s underwear is a no-no, a country one just has to visit.

Lonely Planet's Sales and Marketing Director Chris Zeiher at 2am.

Lonely Planet’s Sales and Marketing Director Chris Zeiher at 2am.

Along with Singapore, the countries in the top ten for 2015 are Namibia, Lithuania, Nicaragua, Ireland, Republic of Congo, Serbia, The Philippines, St Lucia and Morocco. Lonely Planet draws recommendations for Best in Travel from hundreds of ideas submitted by Lonely Planet’s staff, authors, and extended family of travellers, bloggers and tweeters. The suggestions are refined by a panel of in-house travel experts based on topicality, excitement, value and that special X-factor. More information on Best of Travel can be found at Lonely Planet’s website.





Magical Landscapes: Spain, north of the plain

11 06 2014

A view from the backseat of a car of the landscape in the plains of the far north of Castile and León. The photograph was taken on a road trip around the north of Spain in late October 2011. The region is where some of the well-trodden pilgrim pathways of El Camino de Santiago  – the UNESCO World Heritage listed ancient pilgrimage routes of the Way of St. James, passes through, taking pilgrims on journey that is blessed with some truly magical landscapes as well as places en route that are a joy to discover.

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The pilgrimage, which dates back to 9th century A.D. sees pilgrims walking hundreds of kilometres (some routes do involve distances of as much as a thousand kilometres) along several routes leading to the sacred destination of Santiago de Compostela in the far northwest of Spain, the shortest of which is just over a hundred kilometres to venerate St. James (Santiago in Spanish) the Great – one of the twelve apostles. It is in a crypt in the city’s cathedral, the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, that what is believed to be the relics of the saint, is housed.





My Shanghai Story: marketplace Shanghai

28 05 2014

I would probably be the last person to admit this, but hitting the places to shop at was one of several things that I did thoroughly enjoy about my recent visit to Shanghai.

Shanghai's does offer a wealth of opportunities for retail therapy.

Shanghai’s does offer a wealth of opportunities for retail therapy …

Shanghai does have some wonderful places to satisfy that urge to spend that Yuan in. And like me, if parting with the wad of currency notes isn’t as therapeutic as it might be for one of my blogger friends who was on the trip who did seek to fill that excess volume she did ensure she had in her choice of luggage; there are several destinations in the busy city’s retail scene that are worth a look at just for the opportunity they present to discover the Shanghai that lies behind the glossy veneer that the now ultramodern metropolis seems to want to wear.

Shopping at the brightly lit and trendy Nanjing Road.

… that goes beyond the glossy veneer of the modern metropolis that it does seem to want to wear (photograph is of the brightly lit and trendy Nanjing Road).

The bold excitement that the bright lights of Nanjing Road offers is a good place as any to start with for the would be shopper. While the experience provided by many of the shops along the famous street is perhaps replicated in many other Chinese cities, a stroll down Nanjing Road does provide the feel of what the Chinese idiom 人山人海 (literally mountains of people, sea of people) seems to well describe.

The more modern experience of Nanjing Road.

The modern experience of Nanjing Road and the sea of people.

There is also that huge and rather interesting food hall on Nanjing Road to wander into, the Shanghai First Foodmall (photographs). With its four floors of nothing but food ranging from snacks, traditional dried foods, and some quite exotic looking foodstuff, it certainly is worth a peek into.

Dried pieces of pork include rather bizarre looking pig heads at the Shanghai First Foodmall.

Dried pieces of pork include rather bizarre looking pig heads at the Shanghai First Foodmall.

The bazaars, such as the one by Yu Garden (photographs), are for me also worth wandering through, not so much for the shopping experience, but more for the life provided by the crowds of out-of-town folk who descend on it, as it is for the colour and sometimes bizarre sights that they do tend to provide.

Decorative items at a street bazaar.

Decorative items at a street bazaar.

Two places that did thoroughly fascinate me, within a stone’s throw of each other and in the heart of the city not far from Yu Garden, were the Dongtai Road Antiques Market and the Flower, Bird, Fish and Insect Market. It is in the rough-and-tumble of places such as these that I often find myself in on the road, seeking to discover a feel for a place beyond its main tourist sights, although admittedly, the two, especially the antiques market, does seem to wear a somewhat touristy face.

An antique reflected off an antique mirror in the sea of antiques at Dongtai Road Antiques Market.

An antique reflected off an antique mirror in the sea of antiques at Dongtai Road Antiques Market.

Dongtai Road Antiques Market (photographs), which sadly would not be around the next time I visit Shanghai – it will, I am told, be a victim of urbanisation and will make way for the next phase of the Xintiandi (新天地) development in July this year, is probably where you might find more junk and souvenirs rather than antiques. A walk by the market’s two streets centered on the crossroads of Dongtai and Liuhekou Road and lined with makeshift stalls with shops in the back, takes one past piles of old and mostly unserviceable goods such as tattered pieces of luggage, cameras, music instruments, sporting goods, implements in all shapes and sizes, dolls with western features, Mao and Soviet era memorabilia, along with replicas of terracotta warriors, tee-shirts, and other souvenir items.

Time is ticking on Dongtai Road Antiques Market - it will soon be a victim of urbanisation.

Time is ticking on Dongtai Road Antiques Market – it will soon be a victim of urbanisation.

It is across Xizhang South Road, which runs perpendicular to Liuhekou Road, that one is greeted not so much by the melody of birds, but by a cacophony of crickets. The huge fighting crickets, kept in baskets of woven rattan or plastic mesh, and also in clear containers of plastic, is one of several fascinating offerings of the Flower, Bird, Fish and Insect Market (photographs).

Baskets containing fighting crickets at the Flower, Bird, Fish and Insect Market.

Baskets containing fighting crickets at the Flower, Bird, Fish and Insect Market.

The market, possibly one of the last such markets in the city, also offers a range of other items as its mouthful of a name does suggest and strolling through its narrow passageways that takes one well  away from the Shanghai that never seems to slow down.

Birds on sale.

Birds on sale.


My Shanghai Adventure was made possible by Spring Airlines, China’s first Low Cost Carrier. Flights from Singapore to Shanghai were launched on 25 April 2014 . More information can be found on Spring Airline’s website. Do also look out for Spring’s special deals which are regularly posted on their website and also on their Facebook Page.

Previous My Shanghai Story posts:


Photographs

Dongtai Road Antiques Market

 

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Flower, Bird, Fish and Insect Market

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Nanjing Road and the Shanghai First Foodmall

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Bazaars near Yu Yuan

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The view out the window

26 05 2014

One reason to sit by the window on an aeroplane is the visual treat you do sometimes get from the air …

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(photographs taken on a flight into Bangkok)